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Local lawmakers says session a success

April 11, 2004|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

The Maryland General Assembly likely will end its 2004 session Monday without solving the state's future budget problems.

But as far as Washington County is concerned, local lawmakers declared the past 90 days a success.

"Considering how difficult the times have been and how difficult the politics have been, this is going to turn out to be a pretty good session for Washington County," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.

Lawmakers achieved their top priority of getting $1 million of startup money for the University System of Maryland Hagerstown Education Center when it opens in downtown Hagerstown in January.

They also managed to get $400,000 for a charter school for the arts in downtown Hagerstown, plus $750,000 in grants for four other nonprofits that had been seeking money for the last three years.

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Most of the bills the Washington County Delegation submitted this session either have passed the legislature or were on track to pass before midnight Monday.

Those included bills to extend $75 million in borrowing authority to the Washington County Commissioners and set up a Water and Sewer Infrastructure Commission to plan for expected growth in the county.

The delegation's most notable failure was the loss of a proposal to reshape the PenMar Development Corp., which is charged with bringing jobs to the former Fort Ritchie U.S. Army base in Cascade.

Board members and several activists who live near the base lobbied extensively to kill the bill, arguing it was meddlesome and unnecessary.

A bill to tighten tip jar gambling regulations nearly met the same fate when it came three votes away from dying on the floor of the House of Delegates.

It passed the legislature with three days to spare. Once signed by Gov. Robert Ehrlich, it will block groups of tip jar operators from becoming wholesale suppliers. Regulators said strict separation is necessary to ensure accountability.

Ehrlich added money for the university to his fiscal 2005 operating budget, which must get final approval before the legislature adjourns for the year.

Four other Washington County nonprofits also are slated to get state grants through the legislature's bond bill program in the capital budget. They are:

  • American Red Cross - $250,000 for its new headquarters off Eastern Boulevard in Hagerstown.

  • Cumberland Valley Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors - $200,000 toward a training center. The group may put the center in the former Hagerstown Armory on Potomac Street in Hagerstown.

  • Girls Inc. - $200,000 toward a new gym at its West Washington Street facility in Hagerstown.

  • Boys and Girls Club - $100,000 toward a new gym at Noland Village in Hagerstown.


Despite the financial successes for Washington County this session, the state's long-term budget prospects don't look good.

Without legalized slot machines or any other major new sources of revenue, Ehrlich could be forced to make deep cuts to health care and local aid to fill a $800 million budget hole, officials have said.

"This has been a really difficult session," Munson said. "The state's skating on the edge of being broke."

Several lawmakers said they thought this session was particularly partisan, with House Democrats advocating a $670 million tax package rigidly opposed by Ehrlich.

"Some of the major legislation has essentially been held hostage," said Del. Robert A. McKee, R-Washington.

Only in the last few days have legislative leaders been able to negotiate the final details of the budget.

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